Is Baby Sleep A Question of Morality?

When I told my dad that my daughter sleeps in my bed, his first response was “Isn’t that dangerous?” This was followed by a string of typical anti-bed-sharing concerns: “she’ll never learn to be independent.” “You’ll spoil her.” And, “That’s why she has sleep problems.” You might think that my dad was being insensitive, but he was simply expressing concern for his only grandchild. After all, how could you begrudge him his negative sentiments towards co-sleeping? Negitive images of bed-sharing such as the one the CIty of Milwaukee published last week are what shape the North American perspective on baby sleep.




These posters, released by the City of Milwaukee as part of a Safe Sleep Campaign, are intended to dissuade low-income city residents from bed-sharing. The message is clear: co-sleeping is a perilous undertaking, and the delivery of this message is gut-punching, striking fear, shock, and horror into the hearts of parents. 


Yes, bed-sharing carries risks. But so do a lot of other things. LIke crib sleeping. Eating. Driving in car. I won't delve to much into the figures, Annie at Ph.D in Parenting does a wonderful job of extrapolating the data and evaluating the relative risk (and benefits) of co-sleeping. 


But what of the cultural significance of images like the one above? Let’s take a closer look, shall we? The baby is clad only in a diaper. A disposable diaper. She is sleeping on her side, on an unmade bed, loose, smothering, bedding all around. This is hardly the soft, cuddly likeness of well-cared for sleeping babe. These details shout “neglect!” “Bad choices!” “Unfit parents!”


The quality of the picture itself adds to the narrative. Typically, depictions of sleeping babies are soft, with a shallow depth of field, and warm, often pink colour cast. This image, in contrast, is grainy, sharp, and cool, having a quality of a picture in a newspaper depicting the scene of some ghastly tragedy. The underlying message: co-sleeping is to be equated with morbidity and mortality, and is a practice of poor, neglectful parents. 


Now, imagine a child sleeping in a crib. Peaceful, soft, warm, right?


Well, actually not, if you are Japanese.


Recently I was speaking to Stella’s pediatrician about baby sleep. He is Japanese, naturally, but completed a Fellowship at Harvard Medical School. The doctor described to me his shock at American parents, banishing their infants to “a little room with a microphone so that the parents can hear” the baby’s cries. He went on to say, “I ask these parents about the condition of their babies in the night and they have no idea!”  Still, almost 20 after encountering solo infant sleep, our doctor was visibly shocked, aggravated, and judgmental when imagining a baby sleeping alone in a nursery. 


To our pediatrician, a baby sleeping alone in a crib is horrifying, just as the image of co-sleeping is horrifying to my father.


Both my father and my doctor are doing the same thing from opposite sides of the spectrum: they’re moralizing infant sleep, casting their own cultural assumptions on something that really should be a-moral. Westerners, like my father, believe that co-sleeping is inherently risky. While one could argue that intentionally and unnecessarily exposing a child to risk is morally corrupt, that standard can not be applied to co-sleeping. 


We can’t say with certainty that co-seeping, when practiced safely, is inherently more dangerous than crib sleeping. Japan, for example, has some of the lowest SIDS rates in the developed world, extended co-sleeping is practiced almost exclusively. Further, for every study that shows co-sleeping is more dangerous, there is another that suggests crib-sleeping carries more risk. Therefore, if we accept that the relationship between SIDS and safe co-sleeping is unclear, and certainly not causal, we have to take morality out of the equation. 



Is one sleep arrangement better than the other? Perhaps, at the individual, family level. Stella, for example, sleeps much better in her own room, despite the fact that I would love to wake up next to a cooing baby every morning. If I keep her in my bed, she’s up all night playing; in her own bed, she sleeps. It’s a shame that I only discovered this after 14 months of being awake all night. 


At the end of the day, how an otherwise loving and engaged set of parents  choose sleep with their child is not a question of morality and has very little bearing on their fitness as parents, but rather speaks to individual circumstances and cultural assumptions. So, let’s lay off the fear and guilt and moralizing, shall we? Maybe an educational campaign of safe sleep in all forms would be a bit easier to swallow.